A year in the life of a small-town superintendent shows the federal bailout won’t be enough | Schools
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At 8.01pm, on an unseasonably warm April evening, Lisa Grant hit refresh on her internet browser. Grant had been the superintendent of schools in this old coal and lumber town on the side of I-5, the major highway running the length of the west coast, for just 10 months. Tonight, she’d find out if she’d have the funding she needed to keep doing that job.
The Washington secretary of state’s website didn’t immediately update, so she hit refresh again and again, until the early results of a vote on her school district’s property tax levy appeared on the screen.
Voters in the Centralia school district, it seemed, would again reject a ballot proposal to bring in $9.1m over two years for their schools by renewing an existing property tax. It would be their third rejection in less than a year and a half. States and the federal government contribute some money to school budgets, but most are still dependent on local support to survive. Losing the revenue from the local property tax the first time had led the Centralia school board to issue pink slips to nearly 100 staff members and had even put the athletics program on the chopping block.
Managing an always-too-tight budget is just one of the challenges facing superintendents in small- and medium-size districts these days. Explosive political fights over masking, vaccines and critical race theory have resulted in superintendents in places as different as rural Oregon and suburban Maryland resigning or being forced out of their jobs under pressure from newly zealous school boards. About 25% of superintendents left their jobs last year, according to the American Association of School Administrators. So far, Grant has stayed.
On that anxious spring evening, Grant knew final results wouldn’t come in for at least a couple more days. But that night the proposition was failing by 23 votes. She took calls from the local newspaper and radio station, telling reporters, “We’re holding out hope.”
A former special education teacher who grew up in Oregon, Grant rarely considers a problem without mentioning how it affects students. She’s quick to list solutions and quick to laugh.
“She was brimming with enthusiasm and seemed so excited to be there,” said Lori Fast, former president of the Centralia school board, recalling Grant’s first interview. “We wanted to bottle up that energy and have her start the next day.”
But just over a year later, Grant was exhausted. There had been a pandemic, the district’s financial situation turned out to be as bad as Fast and other board members had warned and now she had to prepare for potentially more cuts.
A 2019 study from the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute found only five states spend enough money to help students in high-poverty school districts achieve test scores that meet the national average; Washington state ranked among the lowest spenders on that list. And while recent reforms attempted to narrow the gulf between wealthy and low-income schools, critics question whether Washington’s complicated new funding formulas provide enough money to support all students.
“Washington … is so close and yet so far from the goal,” said Zahava Stadler, a special assistant for state funding and policy at the Education Trust, a national non-profit that works to close opportunity gaps.
“We need to remember that there is no federal right to public education, but every single state constitution mentions a right to public schooling,” Stadler said. “It is the states that assigned themselves the responsibility of doing right and doing fairly by students and it is appropriate and necessary to hold them to that.”
Getting voter support in a cash-strapped, conservative-leaning town like Centralia is hard. The tax measure that was before voters in April 2021 first failed in February 2020, just a month after Grant accepted the job as superintendent. It also failed in August 2020, a month after she’d started. And 13 months into a global pandemic, the prospect of once again banking the financial future of the town’s public school system on the will of its voters struck Grant as especially risky.
That April evening, Grant left the district complex feeling disappointed and frustrated. The two-building central office sits across the street from Centralia’s only middle school; nearby, towering Douglas firs dot the high school campus and a large boulder at the school entrance features a student’s painting of the school mascot, a tiger, wearing a face mask.
Centralia is home to about 18,000 residents, 3,400 of whom are students in the public schools. “Tiny Tigers,” whose presence is announced on lawn signs throughout the small city, attend the district’s five elementary schools. Congratulatory banners hanging from lampposts wave the senior portraits of each graduate in the Class of 2021. But in April, if history was any indication, all that school spirit wouldn’t necessarily translate to financial support.
Long-term problems; short-term funds
During the pandemic, the district was spending about $18,000 each month just to cover internet access for students still learning at home, Grant said. It paid $36,250 for extra desks to bring middle and high schoolers back on a four-day hybrid schedule.
The federal government had moved quickly in 2020 to support K-12 schools to cover such costs, approving $13.2bn in March 2020 to cover unanticipated costs. And by the spring of 2021, Congress had approved three separate rounds of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, known to educators as ESSER, sending a grand total of nearly $190bn hurtling toward classrooms that have not seen such federal largesse since 2009, during the Great Recession.
But in Centralia, some of the federal money had simply backfilled months’ worth of spending on disinfecting classrooms, temporary custodial staff and personal protective equipment.
The emergency funding is also temporary – the last of it must be used by 2023 – and it will not fix the long-term problems faced by school districts like Centralia, which were broke long before the pandemic started.
“The federal government, given the limited tools at its disposal, did the right thing” to send so much relief money, said Stadler, of the Education Trust. “But a short-term infusion of funds in districts that have been struggling with underinvestment for a long time is not going to be a silver bullet.”
In Centralia, Grant worried the federal boon could actually jeopardize “yes” votes for continuing a local tax.
“People think we have all this money to play with,” Grant said the morning after election night. “We have these federal dollars coming in but that’s not a recurring fund.”
Meanwhile, Centralia schools were short on staff, short on community trust and very short on money. In 2018, a teacher strike over demands for a salary hike delayed the start of school for a week.
Although required by law to approve a balanced budget each year, the district forecast it would overspend its revenues by about $500,000 in 2021-22. The projected shortfall would eventually top $3.5m in 2023-24, according to budget documents.
Centralia has also been losing a couple hundred students each year, at the cost of about $8,700 per kid. During the 2020-21 school year, Grant said, the district lost a staggering 476 students – some to a better-performing district nearby, some to homeschooling and others to virtual schools – for a net loss of about $4.2m.
“That’s a school’s worth of funding,” Grant told a budget task force in early December.
She’d also learned in her first weeks on the job that the district had virtually no cash reserves to spend in an emergency. It had no long-term facilities plan to upgrade decaying infrastructure or to replace its aging fleet of buses, Grant said. In her estimation, it also had no sense of financial responsibility.
“One of the issues of why we lost the levy in the first place [was] people felt we gave too much to teachers [when] they went on strike,” she said. “The board was spending in the red every year. You can’t sustain that.”
The federal money will help Centralia and other small struggling districts for a year or two, but the pressure is on superintendents to spend it wisely, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Learning Policy Institute.
“If you spend like pre-pandemic and don’t have additional results, that’s going to come back hard,” he said. “People come back and say, ‘We gave them all this money, and there was no return. There was no long-term improvement in schools.’”
The stakes aren’t lost on Grant.
No tax, no gain
As the third vote on a tax levy drew closer in spring 2021, there seemed to be a chance for victory, but a slim one. Voters had sent mixed messages in the previous two elections: a whopping 69% doomed the first tax measure. The second failed by less than one percentage point.
Mark Dulin, owner of a local construction company and vice president of the Centralia Community Foundation, always supported the school levies. (His wife, Sarah, teaches math at Centralia High and their son graduated from there.) Nonetheless, Dulin could see why so many voters gave the levy a thumbs-down before: in 2018, a teacher strike over demands for a salary hike delayed the start of school for a week. The walkout succeeded, securing educators a 24% pay raise – but the district soon started bleeding red ink.
“It was very contentious,” Dulin said. “People remain offended that the schools were closed for days. [The strike] zapped what used to be a really good community rally behind the schools.”
Centralia’s failure at the ballot box also revealed an obscure quirk in Washington’s school finance system.
In response to a landmark school-funding case, state lawmakers in 2017 capped the rate at which districts could tax their residents, with the aim of creating more equity between schools. That cap, however, makes it easier for wealthy districts to set lower tax rates and still generate significantly more money than property-poor districts taxing their residents at the maximum rate. Lawmakers then created a separate funding mechanism to give those poorer districts more money from the state – provided their voters first approve a local tax levy.
In Centralia’s case, the doomed February 2020 election guaranteed the school district would collect neither its local property taxes nor the additional state support. The lost revenue forced Centralia to trim a fifth of its entire budget – right at the start of a global pandemic.
“I wish our school funding wasn’t contingent on whether the community passes a levy,” said Fast, who will step down from the school board this year. “It’s really unfair that’s how the system works. Folks already feel taxed enough.”
Mental health crisis rears its head
Lewis County school leaders, alongside pediatricians and public health officials, had already started debating how to safely reopen schools in August 2020. One of their top concerns was student mental health.
“With suicidal ideation, it’s never been at this level,” said Jennifer Polley, director of the Northwest Pediatric Center in Centralia and a member of the group. Diagnoses of anxiety, depression and conduct disorder – in which children exhibit aggressive or destructive behavior – had more than doubled, she said. She even heard from pediatricians that children as young as eight were talking about suicide.
“I don’t think we even know the depth of it yet,” Polley said.
It would take another six months before all Centralia students had the option to return to the classroom. On 15 March 2021, almost exactly a year after ordering schools to close, governor Jay Inslee signed an emergency proclamation citing a youth mental health crisis and requiring all public schools to at least partially reopen. That same week, Centralia middle and high schools finally welcomed students back to campus.
The year without in-person learning fueled a lot of arguing between Gloria Delgado and her youngest son, a senior at Centralia High. He had already struggled with their sudden move to the small town from the San Francisco Bay area five years ago and was still finding it difficult to make new friends or take an interest in school.
“The pandemic just exacerbated that”, Delgado said.
Balancing the mental health of 3,400 kids against the potential for outbreaks if schools reopened took a toll on Grant.
“My hair is greyer,” she said. “It’s a heavy responsibility and one I don’t think any of us [superintendents] ever experienced to that degree … I know I wasn’t perfect at it.”
In Lewis county, nearly two-thirds of voters supported Donald Trump’s reelection bid, even as Washington state swung 58% in favor of Joe Biden. The county’s most prominent landmark – a billboard of Uncle Sam – greets drivers along I-5 with what the New York Times once described as “archconservative views in big block letters.” During the pandemic and Washington’s mask mandate, Uncle Sam warned that “edicts are the tools of dictators” and asked “What will the next Wuhan chimera virus be like?”
Although he found the prevalence of anti-mask sentiment and people questioning the reality of the virus frustrating, J P Anderson, the deputy director of Lewis county Public Health & Social Services, also sympathized with the community’s reaction to state orders and prolonged school closures.
“It’s defined largely by economic devastation that was caused by decisions made outside of Lewis county,” he said.
The first blow to the economy came in 2006, when the TransAlta Centralia Power Plant shuttered its coal mine, eliminating 600 top-paying jobs in Lewis county. The Great Recession soon followed, driving unemployment to a peak of 15.4% in 2009.
Those losses affected Centralia’s schools too. In 2010, about 64% of students qualified for subsidized meals at school, a common gauge of household poverty. A decade later, 79% of students were considered low-income. As the schools’ finances floundered, their reputation suffered too, driving many families away: the district lost about 100 students a year, even before the pandemic.
“There’s real historical trauma”, Anderson said, explaining the local reaction to Covid mandates. “When [a decision] comes down and shuts down the economy and folks don’t have jobs any more, that’s suspect. That’s an enemy.”
On New Year’s Eve 2020, TransAlta closed one of its two coal-burning power plants in Centralia. By the time TransAlta extinguishes its second burner in 2025, a total of nearly 200 people will have lost their jobs.
Opening day jitters
Three weeks before winter break in 2020, kids in grades four to six returned to in-person classes. Grant was there to greet them and make sure protocols were followed. Hands shaking – either from nerves or the December morning chill – Grant fumbled to catch the batteries falling out of a digital thermometer and onto the front lawn of Jefferson Lincoln Elementary. It was the second thermometer she had borrowed from the principal’s office. The first didn’t seem to work when Grant tested it on herself while walking toward a line of cars snaking around the entrance to the school.
Replacing the batteries, Grant hustled to join the school staff who approached each vehicle with a new routine: cheerily welcome each student back to Jefferson Lincoln. Check their temperature. Collect a declaration that they had no symptoms of Covid-19.
One mother and her kids remained in their car, appearing confused by Grant’s request.
“You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” Grant asked the school staffer standing closest to her.
Earlier in the year, Grant had convened a reopening task force, hoping to bring all secondary students back to campus by early 2021. But negotiations with the teacher union had stalled.
“We have a ways to go”, Grant said, with a deep sigh.
The impasse joined a growing list of concerns for Grant, who struggled with how to address the mental health of both students and staff, language barriers with families who didn’t speak English at home and an uptick in the number of students experiencing homelessness.
Schools were also short on para-educators, having cut that budget by $2.1m. At Jefferson Lincoln, that meant students in kindergarten through third grade got much needed one-on-one academic help, but older kids did not. And teachers supervised recess.
After the first bell rang that December morning, a straggling student raced past Grant and through the front doors.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” she called after him. “Where’s your mask?”
Cursing, the boy ran back into the thick Northwest fog to check if his ride had already left.
A victory at last
In January 2021, the district received about $1.1m from the first round of federal relief money passed in early 2020. Within three months of that disbursement, Grant said, the fund was about to be exhausted.
The April election finally arrived. From that night when Grant repeatedly refreshed the voter results page, it would be 10 days before she knew the fate of her town’s schools.
“I don’t like that we have to rely on it,” Grant said of the levy election. “In Washington, we’re a pretty regressive tax system … so that’s a heavier burden on our community and our taxpayers.”
In the end, Centralia voters – by a margin of just 1% – approved the $9.1m tax measure. Only 38% of registered voters cast a ballot, but it was enough. The district was also approved by the state to receive about $4.2m from the second round of federal emergency funding and will need to apply to receive an additional $9.5m from the third. If the Biden administration has its way, there will be more money down the line as well as incentives for states to commit to permanently increasing funding to high-poverty districts.
Meanwhile, to get the estimated $4.2m that Centralia schools were eligible for under the second Covid relief package, the district would first have to submit a recovery plan detailing how it would ensure seniors graduated on time, what it would spend the money on over summer and which interventions it would prioritize in fall 2021. Hiring new staff with the one-time money, which Grant said was “tempting”, could bind the district’s budget in the future.
“We have a lot of money. It’s a ton of money,” she said at the end of the 2020-21 school year. “If we misspend it and just go back to business as usual, legislators in the future will add tighter controls … That’s always the tension.”
Grant does not expect the extra state and federal money to last. It never has before.
“We won the support of the public, barely,” she said, “but that swing to trust us isn’t permanent. We have the opportunity to prove ourselves now.”
She doesn’t plan to waste her chance. Unless the federal and state governments commit to massive, ongoing increases in school funding, Grant knows that in two years, when this latest property tax expires, she’ll have to go back to Centralia voters with her hand out, asking again for their help.